Urgent operations being postponed after PM tells England to ‘ride out’ Omicron wave

Urgent operations are now being delayed and restricted in NHS hospitals, as health leaders and MPs warn of the consequences of Boris Johnson’s decision to allow England to “ride out” the Omicron wave without further restrictions, The Independent has learnt.

More than 20 English hospitals have declared emergency incidents due to increasing numbers of nurses and medics being forced to isolate, putting further pressure on a service already stretched by the spike in Covid cases.

NHS England has yet to tell trusts they can stand down urgent operations. But the president of the Intensive Care Society, Dr Stephen Webb, told The Independent that cardiac and cancer procedures were being postponed due to shortages of staff.

“Staff isolation and staff illness due to Covid restricts our ability to care for other patients,” he said. “We are hearing from our members that virtually all intensive care units (ICUs) are under strain primarily because of staffing constraints and this is resulting in many having to limit access for patients having urgent operations.

“Patients who may need an urgent procedure – say a cardiology procedure – that patient will undoubtedly wait for longer in hospital until a spot becomes available for them to be transferred to. That urgent treatment will be restricted because of staffing restrictions, and we have heard that is happening within intensive care units because ICUs have less staff to open beds. Those staffing shortages are not just in ICU.”

Education, transport and other vital services were also being hit by staff shortages, with some schools telling pupils to stay home as the Christmas holiday drew to an end.

Outwood Academy in Middlesbrough asked pupils from years nine and 10 not to come in this week, while the Oasis trust said 10 per cent of staff in its academies have Covid and one of its primaries in Birmingham has closed temporarily.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told MPs that teacher absences are expected to rise further from the 8 per cent recorded before the festive break.

The Fire Brigades Union said that almost a third of London’s fire engines had been out of action during the last week, while almost 10 per cent of operational firefighters in the capital had either tested positive or were self-isolating.

And the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) is still asking patients suffering from suspected strokes or heart attacks to get relatives to drive them to hospital following pressures on staff due to coronavirus and new year demand.

But Mr Johnson confirmed that there would be no tightening of restrictions on social and economic life in England to try to rein in the Omicron variant.

And he boasted that it was his “balanced and proportionate” response to the highly contagious variant which had allowed England to “keep this country open, keep our economy moving more than any other comparable economy in Europe”.

Rules on Covid testing were relaxed, with the removal of the requirement to confirm a positive lateral flow reading with a PCR test. But the change will do little to ease the burden of self-isolation, as the seven-day minimum period always began from the moment infection was first detected.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a reduction from 10 to seven days, in line with England, but Downing Street played down the prospect of a further cut to five days after advice that it would encourage a premature return to work resulting in more infections.

Meanwhile, the requirement for vaccinated passengers to take a pre-departure test before travelling to England was removed from 7 January in recognition of the fact that Omicron is now endemic in the UK and other countries around the globe.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that an estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending 31 December 31, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020. One in 15 people in England had the virus, rising to one in 10 in London.

Some 17,276 Covid patients were in hospital across the UK – 15,659 of them in England – as bed occupancy reached its highest level of the Omicron wave, though well short of the 38,000 reached early in 2020. And around 1 million people were believed to be isolating.

Daily infection rates in the UK remained around 200,000, while 334 more deaths were recorded. The fatality total was the worst of the Omicron wave and the highest since February last year, but was artificially inflated by a backlog of data from English hospitals which had gone unreported since 1 January.

The Independent has seen an internal staff message from University Hospitals Dorset this week declaring a critical incident, in which the trust said it had “very limited number of beds” and the “few beds” it does have are not appropriate for patients, leading to the cancellation of some elective operations.

Meanwhile, University Hospitals Birmingham told staff on Tuesday it has been forced to close all of its surgical theatres at Good Hope Hospital.

Birmingham Community Healthcare Foundation Trust has told patients that it cannot accept any new referrals to its physiotherapy and occupational therapy services and is cancelling non-urgent referrals due to “significant pressures in the hospital and in the community.”

One senior clinician told The Independent their trust had an increase in staff sickness by “hundreds” in just 24 hours and warned: “If the staff losses are sustained at this rate or worse accelerate, I’m not sure how we deliver anything

“Currently [we are] doing everything we can not to cancel cancer operations and we still have a few elective wards that are Covid-free but if we continue to lose staff at this rate, it may happen.”

Mr Johnson told MPs that hospital admissions were “doubling around every nine days” and the UK was experiencing the fastest growth in Covid cases it had ever known.

But he insisted that Plan B measures – including wider use of face masks, Covid passes for mass-audience events and work from home guidance – were “helping to take the edge off the Omicron wave”.

Current measures were “balanced and proportionate ways of ensuring we can live with Covid without letting our guard down”, he told MPs.

And he said he believed that, by the planned review of Plan B on 26, “life will return to something much much closer to normality (and) it won’t be necessary to have the restrictions that we currently have in place”.

But Labour MP Afzal Khan Labour told him England was in “an unsustainable situation”.

“Last night, 17 hospitals across Greater Manchester announced they were suspending non-urgent surgery due to the impact of Covid-19 and at least 10 trusts across England have already been forced to declare critical incidents since Christmas,” Mr Khan told the House.of Commons.

“Last week the PM said he hoped we could ride out this wave but I don’t think our hard-working NHS staff or the government’s scientific advisers would agree. What steps will he now take to ensure Greater Manchester’s hospitals do not become critically overwhelmed?”

Downing Street insisted that trusts’ declarations of critical incidents “are not a good indicator necessarily of how the NHS is performing” as they might last in some cases as little as a few hours.

But Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson acknowledged that the NHS was facing “a challenging number of weeks” and said the possibility of additional measures had not been ruled out as it was not yet known whether the UK or England had yet reached the peak of the Omicron wave.

“It’s too early to judge what the full impact of Omicron will be, so it’s right that we keep measures under review as the public would expect,” said the spokesperson. “But as it stands – as the prime minister has been clear – we believe that we have the right package of proportionate measures in place.”

Douglas Mateo

Douglas holds a position as a content writer at Neptune Pine. His academic qualifications in journalism and home science have offered her a wide base from which to line various topics. He has a proficiency in scripting articles related to the Health industry, including new findings, disease-related, or epidemic-related news. Apart from this, Douglas writes an independent blog and assists people in living healthy life.

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